A mainstay empirical method in economics is "econometrics", which has been called a "nonexperimental" method of investigating causal relations. The usual argument is that the economic system is not subject to experimentation; nonexperimental data will have to be subject to different methods of analysis. (The contrast of course is with the natural sciences, where experimentation is standard.)
Increasingly though economics adopting experimental techniques. The latest Scientific American reports on the work of Kay-Yut Chen at Hewlett-Packard. The difference is that direct commercial applications are being explored:
Chen thinks he has solved the sandbagging problem: have each salesperson choose a personal balance of fixed and variable compensation. For example, the salesperson can choose a high commission percentage with no fixed salary or, at the other extreme, a modest fixed salary and no commission--or some combination in between. Each choice implicitly reveals how much the salesperson plans to sell, much as an insurance subscriber's choice of deductible and premium reveals how sick she is. Based on a truth-telling mechanism from game theory, this design works on paper. But as an experimental economist, Chen will keep testing it empirically, comparing the emerging design with other available models, such as the one he is testing today.
Chen has successfully used that approach to help HP managers design good contracts with retailers and resellers, and he is starting to tackle other thorny problems for his employer: figuring out how to protect HP's bottom line against international currency fluctuations and discovering ways for brick-and-mortar retailers and HP's online store to coexist happily.
Econometrics is nowhere near being supplanted by experimental economics, even in the long run. But I'd be glad to see experimentation becoming a fairly common research method in the field in the medium term.